Delaware Voice: Chrysanthi Leon 6:02 p.m. EST February 26, 2015
This week, my graduate seminar at the University of Delaware hosted several scholars who study sex trafficking, both trafficking laws and the people they affect. Together, this group of scholars and activists from around the world share some common concerns about what happens when well-meaning policymakers use the wrong tools to address problems. Sen. Chris Coons has the opportunity to address one aspect of this with the bill pending now in the Senate Foreign Relations committee, H.R.515, International Megan’s Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking.
While the proposed law would like to end exploitation of children, the approach it proposes will not help.
The law focuses on people listed in sex offender registries (or Megan’s law databases). The core problem with this approach is that empirical research has established that people on the registry are not the ones who will commit new sex crimes.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s own 2002 study shows this: New sex offenses are much more likely to be committed by people not already caught or registered as sex offenders. When the concern is sex trafficking, this is even more misguided, since no connection has ever been made between the two groups. Despite our fears of sex offenders, there is no empirical reason to expect registered sex offenders to be the ones exploiting children abroad.
Beyond this basic mistake in the target of the bill, it would create more unneeded bureaucracy: The U.S. Marshals Service already notifies receiving countries of registered sex offender travel.
Finally, in addition to not helping children, my own research shows how restrictions like these actually harm them. The family members of people on the registry experience many of the same restrictions. Just this week I spoke with someone who was not be able to have her brother walk her down the aisle, because he is registered for “sexting” six years ago. Even though his local and state law enforcement offices had approved his travel, when he changed planes in California he was prevented from leaving the country. On top of missing the wedding, he lost the $2,000 ticket.
Rather than add to the stigmas and other burdens that affect the families of sex offenders (who are also often the victims, since much sexual violence occurs within families).
I urge Sen. Coons to oppose H.R.515, in the interest of fairness, small government and the recognition of what will actually work to protect children.
Chrysanthi Leon is associate professor of sociology and criminal justice and women and gender studies at the University of Delaware.